Roundworm: gastro-intestinal nematode life cycle

Most roundworms that live in the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract of cattle e.g. barber’s pole worm; Haemonchus placei, stomach hair worm; Trichostrongylus axei, small intestinal worm; Cooperia species and small brown stomach worm; Ostertagia ostertagi share this basic direct life cycle.

Figure 1. Gastrointestinal roundworm life cycle. Image created by Madison Mayfield

Dung stage

Dung containing worm eggs is passed onto pasture.

  • Eggs hatch into the first (L1) stage, then moult to the second (L2) stage, and finally the infective larval stage (L3).
  • Time for development from egg to L3 is a minimum of 4-10 days (slower when cooler, faster when warmer).
  • Generally, development to infective larvae is markedly reduced below 10°C or above 35°C, or when dry.
  • L1 and L2 feed on bacteria in the dung, L3 do not feed.
  • Larvae can remain within the dung pat for 5-7 months but some even up to 18 months if the pat is crusted over.

Pasture stage: spreading of infection

L3 move out of the dung pat onto pastures in a film of moisture (rain and heavy dews), to be ingested as cattle graze.

  • L3 are quite resistant to cold, and depending on the roundworm species, to heat and dry conditions, but die quickly above 35°C.
  • Most L3 die in less than 3 months in summer and 5- 6 months in winter but a small percentage may live over 1 year.
  • L3 do not feed; they die when their energy reserves are used up (faster at higher temperatures and humidity).

Final host stage in cattle: new infection and re-infection

Infective larvae are ingested along with the pasture, if uneaten they die on the pasture.

Infective larvae become adults in the gut of cattle where they live, reproduce and lay eggs.

  • Adult worms may live for days, or up to many months, in the gut of cattle.
  • They reproduce and shed eggs that are passed out in cattle dung.
  • If cattle have immunity, they can prevent L3s developing, expel adult worms and suppress worm egg laying.
  • The pre-patent period (the time it takes from ingesting the L3 to when it starts laying eggs) is a minimum of around 12 days, most commonly about 21 days.

Key life cycle points for the control of roundworms

Pasture management tactics that reduce worm intake and the reliance on drenches are based on an understanding of the worm life cycle, especially the effects of environmental factors on worm larval development and survival.

  1. The time for eggs to pass out in the dung after an effective drench

An effective drench will take some hours to kill all the worms present and therefore stop further egg-production by female worms. Some worm eggs will already be on their way down the gut during drenching and won’t be affected by most drenches. It will take 2–4 days after an effective drench for the gut contents to carry most of the worm eggs out of cattle. Bear this in mind if you wish to move cattle to a paddock that is to be kept totally uncontaminated.

  1. The time from worm infection to egg-producing (pre-patent period)

This is the time taken for infective larvae, eaten by cattle grazing pasture, to develop to adult worms in the gut, mate and start laying eggs back into dung. The time depends on the worm species, with barber’s pole worm (Haemonchus placei) completing this period in a minimum time of 26 days under ideal conditions. Most small intestinal worms (Cooperia species) take around 21 days but can be as short as 12 days for C. punctata and C. pectinata.

Therefore, little or no, worm egg contamination of pastures will come within the pre-patent period from cattle given an effective drench that kills 98% or more of the worms present. Cattle can graze up to 25 days in barber’s pole worm areas and nearly 20 days in southern areas with small intestinal worms without shedding eggs.

  1. The time for worm egg development

This is the time between eggs being deposited in dung onto the pasture and when the larvae that have developed from those eggs appear on pasture, ready to re-infect cattle. This varies between about 4 and 10 days, depending on temperature (which governs the rate of development) and the availability of moisture (essential for larval development and movement out of the dung pat). This short time period means that permanent weaning paddocks can become heavily contaminated if the conditions of temperature and moisture are suitable.

  1. Conditions affecting worm egg development

The development of worm larvae on pasture requires both warmth and moisture, with requirements varying between species. In most environments, there are extended periods of the year when worms cannot successfully complete their life cycle, when eggs die before they can develop to infective larvae, and larvae on the pasture also die.

Generally, ideal temperatures are in the range of 10–18°C, but development can occur up to around 35°C if there is abundant moisture. Moisture is critical, and a useful index is the presence of green pasture, which indicates there is sufficient moisture at ground level for development within the dung pat.

In winter rainfall regions, where small brown stomach worm (Ostertagia) is the most important species, egg development occurs from autumn to late spring or early summer, when hot and dry conditions quickly kill eggs as they are deposited. Development begins again in autumn once there is sufficient rainfall to promote pasture growth. (Note, some larvae survive through summer in the dung pat, where summer temperatures are relatively mild.)

Barber’s pole worm (Haemonchus placei) differs from small brown stomach worm, with a higher requirement for moisture and better tolerance of hot conditions, but a poor cold tolerance. Rainfall of least 15 mm rain and up to 50 mm over several days, with a low evaporation rate, provide ideal conditions for development. Periods where it is too dry or cold (and occasionally, too hot) on the pasture often occur sporadically even where the climate is generally favourable, explaining the large variation in risk of barber’s pole worm infection between paddocks and over time.

The worm eggs of most species will die if suitable conditions are not met within about 10 days of being deposited on the pasture. During such conditions, wormy cattle can graze paddocks without significant further contamination with larvae. As the eggs deposited won’t develop, and will die within a short period, they may be suitable for grazing with calves or weaners.

However, during these periods young cattle may continue to be infected with any larvae surviving on the paddock from when conditions were previously suitable for egg hatch and larval development (as explained below).

  1. Survival of worm larvae on pasture

Infective larvae are relatively tough and can withstand dry, cold and moderately hot conditions. The life expectancy of larvae varies depending on the environmental conditions at the time: some will die within days, while others will live for a year or even more. Generally, almost all larvae will be dead within 6 months of development under cooler conditions, and as little as 3 months when temperatures are ideal (about 25–30°C). Under extremely hot, dry conditions larvae will be desiccated and can die in a few days to weeks of these conditions, explaining why worms are rarely a problem in the arid zone.

This principle can be used when deciding how long it will take for paddocks previously contaminated with worms to become low worm-risk (i.e. when most of the worm larvae have died).

  1. Location of larvae on the pasture

As few larvae move higher than 10 cm on pasture plants, cattle grazing on pastures or crops taller than 10 cm are at a considerably lower risk of picking up larvae. As the pasture or crop is grazed closer down to the ground, cattle will consume more larvae, as they are present in greater numbers. Use this principle when choosing or preparing lower worm-risk pastures. Remember, however, that with crops there may be shorter grass around the edges of the paddock where larvae will be more available.

Find out more:

Climate factors contributing to paddock contamination with worms

View a regional annual worm control plan, which incorporates pasture management.